By Stephen Meserve | AHL On The Beat Archive
Texas Stars right winger Brendan Ranford has always been a big fan of the game. But not every fan gets to say he was carried around the Oilers locker room on Doug Weight’s shoulders as a kid.
“When I was around 4 or 5, I would just walk in through the Oiler doors. I don’t remember as much in the dressing room, just walking into those sliding silver doors,” said Ranford. “I was scared a little bit sometimes. My mom told me about me coming out on Doug Weight’s shoulders one time, and Jason Arnott was close with our family. It was crazy.”
Any hockey fan from the 80s and 90s would instantly recognize the Ranford name as belonging to the Stanley Cup and Conn Smythe winner goaltender for the Oilers: Bill Ranford. Thanks to being Bill’s nephew, Brendan had opportunities to soak in all the hockey knowledge he could and become enamored with the game thanks to the most up-close and personal experience you can have short of playing the game.
The connections forged at every step of the way by the third-year forward have helped mold him into one of the best right wingers in the American Hockey League.
The journey for Ranford doesn’t even start on this continent. Despite Edmonton being listed as his hometown, he was born in Lahr, Germany, while his father was stationed on the Canadian base there. “I don’t even know any words of German. I was only there for six months.”
After six months in Germany, Ranford rattles off a list of places he headed next: Red Deer, Edmonton, Victoria, Comox, New Westminster, Ontario and then back to Edmonton. “Being a military family, I moved around a lot. It made me a better person for meeting everybody and getting to enjoy the world.”
No matter where he was, hockey was a constant, “I watched hockey all the time. My uncle had a skybox in Edmonton. Obviously, when he won the Cup, I wasn’t born yet, but I watched a lot of games. Whenever he was in Edmonton or Detroit, my mom always made sure I’d go see my cousins.”
With a lineage like that, you would think it would be natural for Ranford to step into skates and join his uncle in the pursuit of a pro hockey career. His parents never pressured him to play hockey though.
“I’ve just loved it since I was little. My aunt would tell me stories that I wouldn’t even go play in the back [of the skybox]. I’d just sit there and watch the game. All of our families would be talking in the back during intermission, and I would even watch the Zamboni go around.”
Far from a one-sport athlete, Ranford has a laundry list of sports he played or tried during his childhood: baseball, football, figure skating, soccer, basketball, lacrosse and even ballet.
“It was a funny thing,” said Ranford of his time in ballet, laughing. “My cousin is six months younger than I am, and the both of us would go there. We were both a little bit of Michelin man kids, a little bit chubby. We would go, and they would laugh at how heavy we were compared to the ballet kids. We were heavy set kids, and they just got a kick out of it.”
He added quickly, “My mom would drive me around [to all those sports]. It was crazy how much she did, and I appreciate everything she did for me.”
After a bit more globe-trotting, he returned to Edmonton just in time for the WHL Bantam Draft. Living in Ontario for his first bantam year, Ranford didn’t know a lot about the WHL, having concentrated on the OHL. He had the good fortune to find chemistry on his bantam club with current San Antonio Rampage forward Colin Smith. Both were drafted by the Kamloops Blazers.
Ranford put up what could arguably be called video game numbers in Kamloops. Ranford’s current coach, Derek Laxdal, coached against him in the WHL, and knew that he was a special player to watch out for.
“Smaller in stature but competed on both sides of the puck. Just watching tape, you could tell he had a high hockey IQ and a high offensive skills set that was a high level in the WHL.”
But the results weren’t there in terms of playoff victories his first two years.
“The year I turned 18 was the year we turned it around,” said Ranford. “We had a good core of guys. My roommates were Colin Smith and [Manitoba Moose forward] JC Lipon. We lived together, would walk to school together.”
With a bit of wistfulness in his voice, Ranford recalled, “It was crazy, my five years in Kamloops.”
That fifth year in Kamloops, his overage year, came after a stint at the Philadelphia Flyers camp. Ranford was drafted in the seventh round of the 2010 draft and ultimately not signed by the Flyers. He returned to Kamloops with his conviction redoubled.
“It was probably one of the best things to happen to me, not signing and going back for my 20-year-old season. Just focusing on the little things of playing good defense and playing harder, learning that sometimes things don’t come easy in life,” said Ranford. “It made me into a better player now. What Philly did was awesome for me.”
Ranford parlayed a successful overage year in Kamloops into an AHL tryout with the Texas Stars. Texas was coming off a season where they finished first in the conference but were upset by the Oklahoma City Barons in the second round of the playoffs. Everything seemed set on the roster for another run at the Cup.
Texas coach Willie Desjardins acknowledged at the time, "At the beginning of the year, the question was would [Ranford] make our team. Would he make the team as the 13th or 14th forward — not would he make the team as a top six forward."
Ranford stuck around in the regular season, notching 12 goals and 21 assists as a bottom six contributor. The Stars’ top line was the best in the league that year with Colton Sceviour on right wing. As the trade deadline approached, Sceviour was recalled to Dallas, never to return. Now the league’s best line was down to just two members, Curtis McKenzie and Travis Morin. On their wing, Ranford stepped up.
"It’s exceptional to play with those two," said Ranford of the line he played on. "Morin finds guys and makes everyone around him better. He makes some pretty unbelievable passes. Also, McKenzie works so hard and never takes a shift off. It’s so easy playing with the two of them because they work so hard."
In just 21 games in the Calder Cup playoffs, Ranford had eight goals and eight assists, including two game-winning goals. And of course, he and the Stars captured the franchise’s first Calder Cup. All of this came as Ranford was a rookie in the league. In a year filled with bests and mosts and tops, it was also Ranford’s first.
“The biggest thing is that you want to go back and have that experience again at any level. How close the team is, you see it, how much it is that a close team goes a long way. It’s crazy how close we were that year,” said Ranford.
Being raised around hockey gave Ranford a hockey IQ that put him on the radar of Dallas Stars GM Jim Nill after the championship season.
“He’s got an elite hockey sense,” said Nill. “He sees the ice well, sees plays develop well and has good skill around the net.”
Fresh off his first year pro, Ranford inked a three-year entry level deal with Dallas.
Coach Laxdal agrees with the assessment of Brendan’s hockey sense, “Anytime you’re around that environment, those kids have an extra advantage in skills and hockey IQ because they’re around the game so much. With Brendan, he thinks the game well.”
With one NHL game under his belt, Ranford is hungry to get back to the show. As Jim Nill notes, “Everyone wants to be there yesterday.” Laxdal has seen a change in how Ranford approaches the game on and off the ice that has been producing results this season, he believes partly driven by his call-up to the NHL last year.
“Brendan is really starting to dig in,” said Laxdal. “He’s in great shape. I thought last year he really turned the corner on conditioning, and it carried over. He’s a huge catalyst on our team at power play and five-on-five.”
Nill and Laxdal both agree that Ranford just has to keep what he’s been doing to get another chance at the NHL.
“He’s not going to outhit a Shea Weber,” said Nill. “The question is how you get in there and win a puck battle. He’s learning how to outplay those bigger stronger players. He’s one of the better players in the AHL, and he’s getting the better matchups.”
As Ranford continues on his journey, he picked up a great honor a few weeks ago in Syracuse, playing for the Pacific Division in the 2016 AHL All-Star Challenge.
“[Being named an All-Star] says a lot about who he is and what he’s had to overcome,” said Laxdal. “There’s a lot of guys who go to junior and have great numbers. And a lot of guys struggle in the American League. Here’s Brendan who came out as an UFA and he’s made the most of his opportunity.”
Perhaps his best move was the breakaway shot he took in the Skills Competition, a fake slapper followed by a quick over-the-shoulder snipe. It was a well-practiced move, but one he’s never used in a game. Coach Laxdal joked that fans might see that move come off the shelf in a shootout soon.
Through it all, Ranford remembers being a kid and wanting to just soak in the game. To completely and totally commit to your fandom and want to be out there yourself every single day.
“You’re a fan of the game, even though you play for one team. You were a kid at one point too. That’s why I always try to take time to sign things for little kids.
“I was that kid once, dreaming about becoming a professional athlete.”
Stephen Meserve is the editor of 100 Degree Hockey, which has covered the Texas Stars since their inaugural season.